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Lessons from the Holocaust
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Dr. Robert Fisch survived the Holocaust and the Hungarian Revolution (Yellow Star Foundation)
Retired University of Minnesota physician Dr. Robert Fisch, the world renowned expert in mental retardation, received one of university's highest awards on Wednesday. Fisch, 78, has another distinction: he's escaped death twice. Fisch is a World War II Holocaust survivor. Then, in 1956 he escaped death in Hungary after that country's revolution against the Communists.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Dr. Robert Fisch was born and raised a Jew in Budapest. He graduated from high school in 1943 with World War II raging around his country. The Nazis had spared Hungary from invasion because the government supported Germany's views.

Conditions changed in 1944 when the German military marched in and took over. Fisch and nearly all of Hungary's 800,000 Jews were rounded up. Many were shipped off to be killed. Difficult as it is to understand in hindsight, there was not widespread knowledge among Hungarians, Fisch says, of the camps where the Nazi's were killing Jews and others. He says the German's intentions dawned on him when he heard accounts of freight cars being loaded with children and old people.

"The train was locked and went to an unknown destination," Fisch says. "When I heard this I recognized this is not they don't like us; they want to kill us which actually made me a completely different person and actually saved my life."

Fisch says he became wary. He no longer believed what his captors told him. So, when he and other prisoners became ill and were told by guards to get on a train that would take them to a hospital Fisch hung back and didn't get on board.

"Later we learned that they were shot at the edge of the village," he says.

Robert Fisch is a tall man with a full head of hair who looks younger than his 78 years. He lives in Minneapolis. When he talks about the Holocaust he pauses, and his eyes focus on a distant object as he recalls scenes from his youth.

The Nazis sent Fisch and other able bodied Jews to work-camps. They defused unexploded bombs and built bridges for the military. By 1945, the German military realized defeat was imminent. They were frantic to hide evidence of the atrocities they'd committed. The Nazis forced Fisch and the others held prisoner to begin death marches to camps in remote locations of Germany.

"We had to walk for weeks and months from dawn to when the sun the goes down," Fisch says, "Sometimes four or five days without food or water, anyone who was weak and sat down, they shot them."

The terror was never ending. For no apparent reason, Fisch says, the guards would stop the column of prisoners. They'd be paired off and every other pair would be shot. Fisch says he and the others survived any way they could.

"Sometimes we ate dead snails, sometimes someone came out and gave us a glass of water."

Fisch says bystanders risked their lives if they tried to show compassion to the prisoners.

"A woman was giving us apples, and of course we started to scream and tried to get the apple, and she was shot," he says.

Even during the most horrible times when it appeared all was lost, Fisch says, people continued to show acts of compassion.

"Always someone unexpectedly tried to be helpful and this is to me the most important factor," he says.

Even some guards showed compassion. Fisch remembers the fear he felt one day when he and others were assigned to a guard with a reputation for brutality.

"He started to beat us, and as soon as we were out of sight he said, 'Sit down, don't do anything,' And he was absolutely gentle with us until he got to where we would be seen," Fisch says.

Those and other incidents symbolize what Fisch calls the spark of hope in darkness.

U.S. soldiers liberated Fisch and others held prisoner in 1945. He says when the troops opened the gates of his prison camp the starving prisoners with enough strength rushed out to eat leaves on bushes and trees. He remembers some ate the cigarettes offered by soldiers. Fisch pauses to find the right word to describe the feeling of liberation.

"It was to be reborn," he says. "It was a second birth to me, but it was not with a lot of screaming and joy because you were so weak."

Eventually, he returned to Budapast. He learned his father had starved in a concentration camp because he had given his food to others. Fisch's brother had been sent to Switzerland before the war and survived. Catholic friends in Budapest hid his mother and she survived.

Soon Robert Fisch faced new troubles.

Hungary became a satellite state of the Soviet Union after World War II. Fisch studied medicine in Budapest and became a doctor. But he fell out of favor with the Communist authorities. At student gatherings he mocked their ideas. He refused an order to march in a parade criticizing the United States foreign policy. He was punished by being assigned to a medical post in the countryside.

In l956 Hungarians, many of them young people, led a revolution against the Communist government. Soviet troops and tanks crushed the uprising. Fisch says he and other medical personnel made no distinction in their treatment of wounded.

"We saved the lives of many people including Russians because I didn't want to differentiate people on the basis of their belief or something," Fisch says. "So eventually of course we lost, I escaped, and I came to the United States." After the revolution, Hungary's Communist leaders tried to apprehend Fisch and others. Many of those caught, including colleagues of Fisch's, were executed. Fisch says he escaped by walking through the countryside over the border to Austria.

When he arrived in the United States as a young pediatrician Fisch relied on chance to decide where to live. He found a map and arbitrarily put his finger on a location. It happened to be Minnesota.

Fisch became a world leader in phenylketonuria or PKU, the enzyme deficiency which causes some mothers to give birth to mentally retarded children. His most recent paper was published last month. It describes a new way to avoid mental retardation. The technique requires that a mother who has the enzyme deficiency find a woman without the condition who'll agree to carry the biological mother's fertilized egg.

"It's not an easy way," Fisch says. "This woman has to find a good friend who is willing to do that, and it's not easy. But sometimes maybe a family member could do it. So it's another thing."

For years Robert Fisch devoted himself to his science. He told only his closet friends he was a Holocaust survivor.

"(The) Holocaust to me is a disease and you don't want to talk about your disease, you would like to forget your disease but you couldn't. The way I describe it, I was not tattooed but I was tattooed inside," Fisch says.

He ended his silence when a patient learned of his experiences and invited him to speak in her town. Fisch decided talking about his life was a way to convey what he says are the Holocaust's lessons. He now visits schools to talk to young people about the Holocaust.

"You have to stand up early against every injustice which is done by someone else, because if you don't then eventually you are not able to stand up when they come for you," Fisch says.

Fisch has put his experiences and some of his artwork into a book titled, "Light From the Yellow Star. A Lesson of Love from the Holocaust."

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